On December 5th, 2012 Cape May birder Will Kerling was riding his bike through Cape May Court House and spotted a male Western Tanager in some trees along the road at the intersection of Hand Ave and Dias Creek Rd! The tanager was following a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker around in some Siberian Elm trees, trying to get at the sap that the sapsucker was releasing. Over the next few days, many birders visited the location and searched for the bird. Not only was the male Western Tanager still there but also a female Western Tanager, as well as an adult male Baltimore Oriole – all visiting the Siberian Elms, following sapsuckers! Since December, the female tanager and the oriole have been very rare but the male tanager has been fairly reliable.
My friends and I really wanted to see the tanager and were first able to look for it on January 2nd. Most birders that have seen the bird just stand at the intersection and wait for the bird to fly in to the elms. Almost every eBird checklist from someone that actually saw the tanager mentioned that it only came in after a sapsucker was in the tree. So my friends and I stood there and we even saw the sapsucker, but the tanagers and oriole were a no-show. We tried again on the 3rd and still didn’t get the bird.
Josh Lefever and I went back on January 19th, determined to find the tanager. Once again, no luck. So finally, we went back to Cape May Court House first thing on January 20th. The tanager would be a lifer for Josh, and I just really wanted to see it so we were not going to leave without the bird this time. To be honest, this was our 4th attempt at trying to find the bird and I had very little hope. To make matters worse, there weren’t even any sapsuckers around this time, although a Red-bellied Woodpecker was occasionally visiting the elms.
We were only there for a few minutes and I was shocked to hear Josh yell out that he had spotted the tanager! I struggled for a few seconds to get a clear view of the bird, but then we had great looks at it while it followed around the Red-belly, trying to drink up the flowing sap and occasionally getting in to little tussles with the woodpecker! After a few minutes, the tanager flew out of the elms and went over to a small patch of cedars and pines, two houses over. I was pretty excited because the bird had dropped down to just above eye-level and the lighting was much nicer for getting photos but the branches of the cedar kept getting in the way of the bird. The tanager foraged in a cedar right above someone’s driveway for the next few minutes and I snapped off photos, struggling to get an unobstructed shot. Finally I managed to get the photo below, which still has one blurry cedar branch in the way but at least its not covering the body of the tanager. Needless to say, both Josh and I were pretty excited! It took us 4 tries, but the tanager’s schedule finally matched up with ours! We were so happy we had finally found the tanager, but had no idea what was about to happen…..
On each of our 4 visits to Cape May Court House to look for the tanager, there were always lots of Turkey and Black Vultures flying around since there was a known roost location nearby. But on the morning of the 20th, while we were watching the tanager foraging in the cedar tree, we saw a mostly black but white-headed raptor flying towards us. My immediate impression was a Bald Eagle, but something was off and the bird didn’t look large enough. The many trees in the backyard of the houses were blocking our view, but then the raptor swooped up to land on a branch and it was very clear what we were looking at – an adult Crested Caracara! We really couldn’t believe it! There had been scattered reports of an adult Crested Caracara around New Jersey since one showed up near East Windsor back in August. And one had even been seen in Cape May during the second week of January, but then also disappeared. The reports were scattered and seemingly random, so I had no plans of seeing one or trying to find one, thinking it would be a miracle to actually stumble across one. More about this fall/winter’s bizzare Crested Caracara sightings in New Jersey can be found at this link.
Although the tanager was awesome, our attention quickly switched to trying to get a better angle on the caracara and take some photos. Josh stayed put, keeping an eye on the caracara while I ran around to another street to see if I could get better photos. I was able to find a nice angle, and while I was taking photos I could see that another birder had pulled in, likely also there for the tanager. I frantically waved to the birder to get him to run down and see the caracara before it flew off. A bunch of crows were mobbing the caracara and the bird was swaying back and forth like raptors do right before they take off. The birder ran down towards me, but right before he got to where I was standing, the caracara took flight and flew right over our heads! The bird then chased a Turkey Vulture around the air for a few seconds before flying out of view. We all thought that would be the end of it – we had stumbled across the caracara and by some miracle, saw it but now it was gone. Luckily, the caracara was not done showing off!
A few minutes later it flew back towards us, this time carrying a dead mouse in its mouth! The caracara landed back in the trees where we first saw it and ate the mouse. It then went on to flying down low in the urban yards, hunting through them very much like a Cooper’s Hawk. I have spent lots of time around caracaras, watching their behavior, but I had never seen anything like this! The bird then flew over to some backyards about a block away and was perching in trees and on telephone poles but was being very active and hard to follow around on foot. Luckily, a whole group of birders showed up in search of the caracara, knowing it was there since I texted it out on the KEEKEEKERR text alert. They ran down to where I was standing just in time to see the bird fly off to the southwest and out of view.
Although the caracara had flown off and I felt bad for all the other birders pulling up to the spot, finally I had a moment to relax – for the past 20 minutes my heart was pounding from all the excitement! We all walked back over to the intersection of Hand Ave and Dias Creek Rd and were happy to find the Western Tanager still there! Instead of being in the elms or the cedars, the tanager was now following Eastern Bluebirds around someone’s front yard and driveway! It took us 4 attempts to see the tanager but it was more than worth it – the tanager actually led us RIGHT to the caracara! In fact, if the tanager hadn’t flown down to the cedars, houses would have blocked our view into the backyards and it is possible we never would have spotted the caracara at all!